NH's Immigration Story
10:00 am
Fri April 13, 2012

How Refugees Fuel One New Hampshire Business

D. S. Cole Growers in Loudon, New Hampshire bills itself as a ‘wholesale greenhouse facility’. That means, they grow a lot of the potted plants that are then shipped to garden centers and landscapers across New England.  Looking across the facility you see greenhouses filled up with row upon rows of annuals, while flower baskets hang in long lines above your head

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For many of those who are employed here, the work isn’t that glamorous. It’s a lot of planting and cutting and watering and potting and then replanting, but the job needs to get done and that’s where the refugee comes in.  For the last decade, D.S. Cole has been employing refugees to do a lot of  ... if you pardon the double entendre, ‘dirty work’. Chris Schlegel is head grower for D.S. Cole     

We started hired the immigrants, primarily because they are very aggressive about looking for work. We haven’t put an ad in the paper for the last three years for seasonal work. The folks that we’ve had the longest are from the Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia area and more recently we’ve had quite a few folks come from Bhutan and Nepal.  

The company begins hiring new staff in January and many work through the spring.  At its busiest time, there may be up to 75 people working at the greenhouse. The work can be tedious and tough, but for many of these refugees, their first job at Cole’s is their first in America and the first step to finally living the American dream.  Shipping supervisor, Laurie Whiteway

They want to work, most immigrants come from a place they’ve had no work; they come from very poor situations. So when they come here they’re so incredibly grateful and they love to work, they love to be productive, and most will grasp the opportunities and learn everything they possibly can.  They would work 7 days a week if we let them, which we don’t. It’s just that they just enjoy working because they’ve never had opportunities to be able do it before.

But these jobs don’t only help refugees; they help the employer as well. According to owner Doug Cole, refugees fill a gap that many in agriculture find hard to fill.  

Let’s be honest, a lot of the people looking for jobs in the US, they’re not thrilled with agriculture quite often. It’s not always deemed a great profession.  We pay the same rate whether it’s a refugee immigrant, New Hampshire citizen that was born here etc.  I will say though that many of the people that are looking for jobs, may not be willing to work for an agricultural rate, so we’re not taking advantage of the immigrant, but the pool of people is a little thin that is willing to work at an agricultural rate.

But refugees have been willing and so overall it’s been a good fit. But there are challenges as well. Many refugees don’t have a good grasp on the language and so communication can be a problem.  Managers at D.S. Cole have tried to circumvent that by elevating those can understand the language better to translate and mediate between the English speaking staff and refugees.  Hasta Banderi is one of them. For twenty one of his twenty two years, Hasta lived in a refugee camp in Nepal. Then six months ago he came to New Hampshire.  In February, he was hired for his first job in America at D.S. Coles and still remembers that day   

When they hired she called me, and my mother received the call and she was not understanding English so she understand my name. So she said here is a call for you and I just received and there was Chris speaking with me and I was so happy to get the job. 

 But Hasta also knows that this first job is only seasonal; available only until the summer. And with rent, a wife and two younger siblings he needs to support, Hasta worries about what that might mean for him when the work runs out.

So when it ends, we don’t know what we are going to do. That make us worry about the future, because if we don’t have work or if the work ends or don’t go well, then it’s you who will be out in the streets so it’s very very hard. KEITH – but right now you do have work and you’re doing well,  Yes, I think so but I do have to think about my future because I have a lot of people behind me so I have to support them. 

But employees at D.S. Cole are trying to work around that.  Their attempting to team up with those garden centers and nurseries that buy their products... to job share. So that by April or May, many of these workers can be employed by them, until business picks up once again for the greenhouse.  For Doug Cole, it’s important to them to help out these refugees, since as he says, the refugee has also helped him.

Looking back in hindsight, if either or both the Yugoslavian group didn’t come over and the Bhutanese group did not come over, we’d probably be in trouble labor-wise here. It would be tough if they weren’t here. Everybody thinks of picking strawberries grapes etc in California, its huge without this workforce Americans would be in big trouble. We just don’t have the people that are willing to do this work.

And it’s not just the work.  For many at D.S. Cole, the refugees who have come there have added a lot more than just filled pots and a narrow bottom line... but a spirit as well. Once again Chris Schlegel.

I guess the other thing the immigrants brought to DS Cole is just their joy of life. It’s incredible for what some of those folks have been through.  Some of them have been in refugee camps for years and years and they are the happiest people that I think I’ve ever met. It really puts in perspective some of the problems we have.

For New Hampshire’s Immigration story and the Exchange, I’m Keith Shields